Emathy or Ego? Your Choice

            “It’s all about me.” “People should treat me with kindness because I have suffered trauma in the past.” “I know more than most people.” “My group’s position is the correct one.” These statements are examples of selfishness, conceit, vanity, arrogance, self-preoccupation, self-absorption, and narcissism. Such attitudes and characteristics are profoundly incompatible with effective coping. Why? First, they are unrealistic, and based on denial of one’s own weaknesses and others’ strengths. Second, many will reject narcissists and force them to operate only in their personal comfort zone surrounded by their like-thinking “tribe.” Third, those who are self-absorbed do not see the need to develop strengths that make them flexible in a variety of situations. Fourth, arrogance hinders personal growth that comes from honest self-evaluation.

            When you present yourself as the primary ingredient in the recipe, you show yourself as a robot, a non-human. You know you are susceptible to weaknesses and mistakes, but you are unable to be realistically self-aware, and you must constantly try to cover up your shortcomings and your insecurities. In the long run you come across as hypocritical, feckless, untrustworthy, and incompetent. You cannot accept who you are, or refrain from presenting yourself to others as someone superior. Self-absorption is the only way you can avoid facing the truth about yourself, the truth that plunges you into anxiety. You live in a world of denial and deception.

            The following are comments from clients participating in group therapy. Note how they transition away from arrogance and self-importance:

“Telling my story to others, and listening to their stories, helped me organize the basic facts, the reality of the event. I felt less alone.”

            “I discovered it was OK to be nervous; OK to feel ashamed like I was the Lone Ranger, alone in my turmoil.”

            “I found it was OK to laugh, and talk, and share. There was a lot of that in my group.”

            “We shared our secrets, our darkest days. I felt a sense of belonging because there was a bond of trust, privacy, an unspoken understanding that our secrets would never leave the group. It gave me a sense of identity beyond myself, and the security that feeling brought me was unreal.”

            “New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But the long-term effect was acceptance and a feeling of personal strength.”

            “I knew I was reaching an inner peace and strength when it occurred to me that I had become as much a helper in my group as one who needed help. When I shared my story with newcomers, I could see it in their faces. There is life afterwards; it goes on.”

            “I discovered sympathy and empathy…I mean to the point that I realized it was not all about me. We asked the same questions, faced the same demons, and found lifelines. Since joining my group, I have felt more human than ever before in my life.”

            These comments show that the speakers have moved away from self-preoccupation and self-absorption, and toward empathy for others. We usually think of empathy in terms of helping others, but it’s more. If you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as another, who can understand their plight more than you? The true human beauty of empathy, however, is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that, as you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you leave no one behind – including yourself.

A colleague shared a story with me, and it is one of the best expressions of empathy I have ever read. She asked a Vietnam veteran how he continued to cope with the personal losses he suffered during the war. He replied: “I celebrate their memories by fulfilling their bucket lists. I do what I can to continue their lives. I give hope for those who are lacking it. I don’t attend pity parties. I read to those who lost sight because even though I lost things, I still can see. I get groceries for those who lost limbs. I do what good I can because there was a reason I was spared.”   

People hear what we say with their brains, but they listen to us with their hearts. When you are able to reach your listeners’ hearts, you are communicating with empathetic messages. And you know what will happen next? You will discover that your personal coping efforts will be greatly enhanced because you will realize you’re communicating with your own heart. That self-discovery will bring you independence and empowerment with empathy. Your independence will be without isolation and loneliness; your empowerment will be without self-absorption.

A focus on your ego and self-importance is incompatible with effective coping. You will be trapped in a vise of your own insecurities. You will be susceptible to the controlling influence of others, and robbed of your autonomy. Only by selflessly helping others in need can you free yourself from that vise, and live a much more enjoyable and satisfying life.

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